Judging the Homeless

One question I’ve heard echoed several times since the announcement of the bailout plan is, “Why bail out the rich when we refuse to bail out the poor?” Why is the government rushing to help executives and not former homeowners? (Sure, there was that wishy-washy plan a few months ago, but that was nothing, in terms of speed and magnitude, compared to this.) Why the double standard? Why the blatant hypocrisy?

One argument has to do with trickle-down theories and chain reactions: if large companies like Fannie Mae or AIG go under, the effects will ripple throughout the entire economy. Better to save their asses and protect our own jobs. And while there are flaws in that logic, it’s an argument worth considering.

That doesn’t explain people’s attitudes toward the bailout, though.

When I explain how college administrations exploit me and my colleagues, the number one comment I get from conservatives is that I’m “whining.” I’m “complaining.” I should suck it up, accept what I’m worth, or get another job if I’m so unhappy. If the “market” mows me over? If I fall ill while underinsured? I deserve it! Maybe I’ll die! Good riddance! (Anyone who sees this paragraph as more whining is free to turn off their computer and go for a walk; don’t bother commenting, because it won’t appear.) I don’t take the attacks personally, though, because that type of rhetoric is par for the course. When a lefty type – or, even worse, a poor or working-class lefty type – asks for help, spit froths and teeth gnash. People get angry at that shit. They get dramatic. You’d think they were being asked to kill their pets or something. It’s almost as if – bear with me here, because I know this is wild – people take pleasure in punishing victims. Yet, throughout this new crisis, I’ve noticed a curious dearth of ad hominem attacks leveled at CEOs. Sure, plenty of conservatives are angry, but the vitriol I’ve seen is nothing compared to the vicious attacks routinely leveled at the poor and working class.

You’re probably expecting me to spend the next two thirds of this blog post complaining about what rotten people conservatives are. Actually, I’d like to talk about my fellow leftists. I’ve found myself thinking, over the past few days, about the ways people with class privilege approach the homeless. I know many people who like to offer homeless people food – bread, apples, lunch meat, whatever. Sometimes they carry it around with them in case they encounter someone begging; other times, they make a field trip out of it, hitting a grocery store and then taking the goods around a neighborhood. On the surface, this seems pretty noble – after all, those people need food, right? Fresh fruit! Protein! Good stuff! Surely they’ll appreciate it and eat it up and we’ll have done a good deed.

Except… well, first off, I’ve never personally witnessed someone doing this. I always encounter it in the form of a brief anecdote: this one thing that they tried this one time. And the punch line’s always the same. “I offered him a perfectly good nutritious apple,” the progressive says with a sad shake of the head, “…and he didn’t even want it!”

(The point being that all the guy really wanted was money for heroin and booze, and oh why should we even try to help these people when they’re too lazy to help themselves well I wash my hands of the whole thing!)

I hear the same hopeless condescension in discussions on the myriad addictions of the homeless. Why should I give him change when he’ll just spend it on drugs? Why should I help him when he’s spending his money on liquor? Or alternately: I only give money to people who are honest – the ones who just admit that they’re going to spend it on drugs and liquor!

If you’ll allow me a digression, let me explain why this reasoning doesn’t work. First off, the homeless do often have access to food; they’re not necessarily relying on your Red Delicious to stay alive. Soup kitchens, shelters, and nonprofit organizations work to provide the homeless with basic sustenance. Putting aside, for now, the question of drugs and alcohol, it’s actually a little absurd to decide that the only thing the homeless should ever desire from passersby is food or money for food. The average American spends around 10% of their income on food; why should the homeless spend 100%? If a person who has lost their apartment wants to purchase, say, a cup of coffee, why do we obsess over denying them that right? (There’s also the possibility that the guy to whom you’re offering food simply doesn’t like what you’re trying to give him. Perhaps he’d rather have the money to choose his own food. You could argue that he should just choke it down – but if you’re feeling so generous, why not give him the money instead?)

When you factor in people’s immediate assumption that if the homeless are not buying food, they’re obviously buying drugs, the attitude towards giving becomes even more condescending. Behind the assumption that the homeless are buying intoxicants lies the assumption that the homeless are uniformly addicted to intoxicants: that every homeless woman who buys weed is also a heroin addict, that every homeless man who buys beer is an alcoholic. Now, it’s true that a disproportionate number of homeless people suffer from addiction, and that addiction (in conjunction with health issues, housing costs, and other factors) is a leading cause of homelessness. But notice how we skip straight to the assumption that every homeless person we see, no matter how lucid they seem, is an addict? Do we check for slurred speech or needle tracks before we assume that they’ll “just spend it on drugs?” No. Often, we shake our heads at their alcohol use on our way to the bar. We deny them money on the off chance that they’ll buy something we don’t want them to buy, and then proceed to pay our government officials’ salaries. The assumption that the homeless must be kept away from harmful substances at all costs (to them, not us) is, when you think about it, an astoundingly patronizing double standard. We can be trusted to drink and smoke in moderation. They can’t.

So where am I going with this? Like I said, what I want to call attention to is the attitude that comes with giving. Because whenever I hear a leftist with privilege talking about that one time they tried to give someone a loaf of bread, I always detect a note of satisfaction in their voice. If this were truly a problem for people – if people with homes truly cared about the homeless and wanted to help them – we would scramble for other ways to accomplish that. We would engage with them, let them tell us what they need. We would give our money to shelters and programs. We would work harder to create safety nets. But we don’t. The people who moan about the futility of giving don’t really want to give. Instead, they go through the motions so they can get to that punch line: “There’s no point in trying, because they’re lazy and weak and thus belong where they are.”

Why are we amenable to bailing out the rich, but not the poor? It’s not entirely about economics. It’s not even entirely about stinginess or apathy. It’s about power. When I have money and you don’t, I’m more powerful than you are. And when I have a choice to make – dissolving that power by giving you what you need, or holding onto that power by putting you in your place – it’s much more thrilling to peck my way up to a higher spot in the order. That’s why it’s so satisfying, for so many liberal-minded people, to sigh over the incompetency of those who seem dependent on our kindness. The categories “we” and “they” solidify. “We” would never end up in that position, because “we” are better and smarter. The gap between liberal and conservative suddenly shrinks to nothing.

To many middle- and upper-class people across the political spectrum, the executives at Fanny Mae and AIG look much more familiar than the woman pushing a shopping cart down 5th street – or the family who took out a subprime loan. And even when those execs are forced to sell their private jets, we know they’ve still got power, and that thrill of subjugation is absent. The line between “we” and “they” is permeable, as the American Dream tells us it should be. Sure, some of us feel the vindictive pleasure of seeing the mighty brought down low – but that’s not the same as wagging our finger, smugly keeping our handful of change, and keeping our privilege (to drink without being judged, to spend our income how we please) in place. It’s hard to get angry when we can’t be patronizing, too. When the person in need is at or above our level, we choose to give, even if reluctantly. If that person is below us, we choose – gleefully – to withhold.

Notice how I can’t help but describe it in terms of up and down? Notice how much we cling to this hierarchy – even when we tell ourselves we’re trying to level it?

And notice how I’m the twenty gazillionth person to say this, and nothing whatsoever has changed?

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog)


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